Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Kung Fu Masters of China's Henan Province

Below is an excerpt from the travel column at the South China Morning Post regarding the kung fu masters presently teaching in Henan Province. The whole article  may be read here.

Shaolin Temple. Those two words may conjure up images of Zen-like monks living a reclusive life in the mountains, imitating the movements of animals in the pursuit of enlightenment. Or perhaps you picture those monks doing somersaults, landing to break metal bars over their heads while spears are stuck into their throats. The cinema and savvy publicity by the current abbot have a lot to answer for.
I am visiting Henan province’s Dengfeng county, home to the temple, to track down styles of kung fu that have been practised in the area since the late Ming, early Qing dynasties. 

Television viewers have seen Dengfeng town, its streets teeming with kung fu kids jogging up and down in tracksuits before disappearing into their schools to practise routines. In the flesh, the scale of these institutions is overwhelming. But I am not here to visit these large modern schools.

Shaolin kung fu is misunderstood. TV shows would have us believe a monk named Bodhidharma, from India, taught yogic type exercises to the Buddhist monks to relieve aches and pains brought on by long periods of meditation. It was this, they say, that inspired the monks to create styles of kung fu based on the movements of animals.

The truth, though, is more prosaic. The Shaolin Temple lies in a mountain pass not far from the ancient capital of Luoyang. War, banditry and rebellion have long ravaged the area. The temple was often caught in the middle and so kept its own militia. Over hundreds of years, the fighters absorbed various forms of martial arts from the surrounding areas, the temple becoming a hub for the exchange of ideas and the development of kung fu.
Kung fu students train in Dengfeng.

I base myself at the small school of Hu Zhengsheng, in a village between the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng town. Master Hu’s school focuses on Xinyiba, the so-called internal art of Shaolin, which takes a mini­malist attitude to training: a few core movements used to develop coordination and the mind-body connection.

Hu is one of the few teachers still in con­tact with the old masters out in the villages. Down to earth, tall and slim, he smiles often and doesn’t fit the stereo­typical kung fu master mould. 

He enjoys having his foreign students hang out and drink tea in his office; a respite, he says, from the stress of dealing with officials and the bureaucracy involved in running a business such as his. Hu sits on the floor and stretches his legs while telling us about his own shifus, principles and theory of the art. He swings around rusty antique weapons as he talks.

My search for the old Shaolin methods leads me first to 90-year-old Mao Yonghan, who, I’ve been told, was a monk in pre-revolution times. Hu phones ahead to tell Mao I am going to visit and, along with one of Hu’s students, I take a taxi to the address I have been given.

The small block of flats in the middle of Dengfeng town is old and run down. Next to it is wasteland littered with bricks, broken glass and rubble that residents have optimi­stically turned into an allotment. A man waiting by the road tells us he is Mao’s son and leads us into a concrete room on the ground floor of the residential block. Other than a small shrine and photos of people in kung fu poses on the wall, the damp, musty room is empty. Mao enters, dressed in full monk regalia, to greet us.

The story goes that in the 1930s, his parents sold him to the temple in exchange for corn and then went off to be beggars. He was raised by the Shaolin monks and train­ed as a wuseng (warrior monk). When he reached adulthood, he left monastic life to marry and start a family, but continued his martial arts. He began teaching only later.

Our meeting feels strained. The son sits us down for tea but will not let us converse with his father.We leave confused, and with­out having found out much about Mao’s fighting style. Fortunately, other masters live in the area.

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Shadow Ranking System in Martial Arts

We're all familiar with the kyu-dan, colored and black belt ranking system. Some of us are also familiar with the kyoshi-renshi-shihan designations. Sometimes they co-exist alongside each other.

There is also the senpai (or sempai)-kohai system, which has to do with seniority.

Over at Kogen Budo, Ellis Amdur published an article about the senpai-kohai system. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read  here.

Senpai-Kohai: The Shadow Ranking System

Several decades ago, my friends Phil & Nobuko Relnick, high ranking members of Shinto Muso-ryu and Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu were traveling in Portugal. They visited a school of jogo do pau. Phil and Nobuko wanted to pay proper respect to the school they were visiting, and in proper Japanese fashion, asked, “Who is the instructor.” The older men looked puzzled, conferred with each other and pointing to one man, said, “Probably him. He’s the oldest.”

Martial arts rooted in a locale, be it a village, a hunter-gatherer band, or a faction in  a city, often did not have ranks, in the sense that we imagine it. Rather, the people with the most skill (of any age) were treasured and respected for their utility and elders were respected for their knowledge, their history and their authority as elders. This certainly is true of Japan. 

For thousands of years, villages and hunter-gatherers protected themselves, and they organized using the same hierarchical systems that kept the rest of their society intact. Skill and valor gained one accolades, and age and past actions gained one authority. Even after the central Yamato government coalesced through building a conscript military,  there were warrior bands in the frontier areas that eventually developed into the  bushi. They had leaders, to be sure, but within their bands, seniority (both age and entry into the group) carried considerable weight. This still applies within Japanese martial arts today. Senpai have authority simply by being there first.

I could easily write at length about the problems that such a system can foster; the Japanese high school and university club systems are rife with abuse, and the horrifying level of atrocities the Japanese committed in World War II, turning areas of China into an open-air Auschwitz, were fueled, in large part, by the perceived impossibility of defying one’s seniors’ demands. But let us leave such discussions for another time. Particularly when talking about martial culture, which concerns violence first-and-foremost,  one can easily focus on the worst. Within that same martial culture exists some of the best aspects of humanity, and that, too, is fostered in part, by a natural system of seniority.

Let us speak, specifically, about the role of seniority within koryu bujutsuThere are two aspects to seniority: who joined the ryuha first is the most obvious form of seniority; the second is who joined a specific dojo first, because, led by different shihan, dojo can have different cultures, and different hierarchies within which a guest from another dojo, a ‘semi-outsider,’ must fit. A perfect example of the complexity is shown by one of my former students, GM, who began training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu  at the Athens Hokusei Dojo. He moved to Japan, and when this proved to be long-term, he officially joined the Nakano Dojo of Kent Sorensen sensei, soke-dairi of the ryu, becoming his student. In terms of years of training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu, I believe he was somewhere among the middle-to-senior members of the Nakano Dojo, but in another sense, he was the most junior member of the dojo at the moment of his entry. So he had to find his proper place.

It’s even more complex, because one’s certification (shoden, chuden, okuden, or mokuroku, menkyo, inka, to call up two ‘sequences’ of rank) all plays into this. So how does one ‘calibrate’ these somewhat overlapping, slightly conflicting designations of seniority? Kan (勘) ‘intuition,’ something based on cultural knowledge, an observation of the way the dojo head treats each individual, and the way that the person in question integrates himself or herself within the dojo culture. And if it’s not working out, the senior members of the school (and rarely, the shihan) help the new member to re-calibrate to properly blend in.

A question could be raised: shouldn’t the school have a rule book, a behavioral manual that is handed to the student upon entry? Well, there may be, but only in the most general of terms. In many schools, one gives a kishomon (blood-oath), that gives a few general conditions for entry. (See Old School for a fine-grained analysis of such oaths). The kishomon gives only a few conditions, however, whereas we are speaking here of a very complex array of values and behaviors, the sum total of Japanese archaic martial culture. Note that phrase: ‘martial culture.’ To truly survive in high-risk encounters, one has to develop an exquisite sensitivity to other people, both one’s own allies and one’s enemies. 

The development of kan is essential. How can one develop the ability to intuit the level of confidence of one’s own people, the intent of one’s adversaries, unless it is a part of training? To be on tenterhooks, to be concerned that one might mortally offend one’s teacher or dojo seniors, requires that one develop an acute moment-by-moment sensitivity. Paradoxically, the successful student learns to relax while on tenterhooks, something I have referred to elsewhere as ‘wolf-pack etiquette.’ A set of rules, memorized by rote, will, first of all, be enacted in an artificial way, and secondly, will rob the student of an opportunity to develop what is really important–in short, reigi (formal/proper behavior) is the royal road to kan.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Sun Lu Tang and the Invention of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Sun Lu Tang, probably more than any other individual, has influenced our concept of what is meant by “Traditional Chinese Martial Art.”

Over at Kung Fu Tea is a four-part series examining the life, times and work of Sun Lu Tang. Below is an excerpt from the first part. The full first part may be read here.

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Internal Power of Budo

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Budo Bum. The author describes the same sort of power that is cultivated in internal Chinese Martial Arts. The full post may be read here.

We want powerful budo. Powerful budo is effective budo. Powerful budo is good budo. So how do we make our budo powerful? We make it stronger. The stronger someone’s budo is the more powerful it is. How do we make our budo stronger?
Usually we add muscle. We do push-ups and sit-ups. We train with weights to increase our bench press and our squat. Then we throw this additional muscle into our budo so we can hit harder, throw bigger, cut deeper. It makes our budo more effective and more powerful so we can beat the big guys. This is the way to powerful budo. Or is it?

None of the people whose budo I strive to emulate do muscular budo, yet all of their budo is powerful and dynamic. When they cut or strike or throw, the movement is solid and crisp. Nothing is done that isn’t essential to the movement. The cuts look like they could slice through stone. The strikes look, and feel, like getting hit with a truck. Throws hit you with the force of the planet. All of this without being muscular.

My teachers don’t need to be muscular to generate power. They have a combination of structure and technique that creates power and lets them direct it to where it will be most effective. Correct structure allows you to harness all the power of your body, not just a few big muscles. Precise technique puts all that power exactly where you want it for maximum effect.

If your structure isn’t right, even loads of muscle won’t make your budo strong.

There is always someone more muscular. I used to train with a guy who was a good 15 cm (6 inches) taller, 80 pounds heavier, and able to lift me off my feet without using any sort of judo technique. He was powerful and he could throw people around, but he wasn’t doing judo. His raw muscular strength got in the way of him learning good technique. He could jerk people so hard they were off balance from the force of the pull and then he would throw them by manually lifting them into position, but that wasn’t budo.

What frustrated this guy was that even though I was 80 pounds lighter and significantly weaker, he couldn’t throw me but I could throw him, hard. He was strong enough to pick me up off my feet, something I could only do to him with the help of winch, and yet I was the one doing the throwing. I used good structure to hold my partner off without getting tired. If I tried to go muscle to muscle with any of the big guys, I’d be exhausted and beaten in moments. Power doesn’t come from strength, it comes from structure and technique. If I let my structure absorb their power and redirect it into the ground, I can still go many rounds with the big 20-somethings in the dojo.

Just as a building with a flawed structure will quickly collapse under pressure, a person with bad structure is quickly demolished by an adversary. Good structure is not only the key to withstanding pressure, it is fundamental to projecting your power outward. You can only project as much force as your structure can support. Exceed that limit and you will crumble rather than your target. Boxers wrap their hands and wear gloves to improve the structure of their hands so they can deal with the forces they generate when punching. Take off those gloves and all the wrapping and boxers would be breaking the bones in their hands with the power generated by their technique.

If your structure can’t handle the forces you are generating, then your technique will never be able to generate power. Building a good structure is the first step to generating great power. Build a good structure and you build and project power effectively. Good structure also neutralizes other people’s power. That’s how you deal with bigger, stronger and faster. You have a structure that is stable under attack.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Tang Dynasty Poems: # 79, Hard Roads in Shu

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here. Today we have #79: Hard Roads in Shu.


Oh, but it is high and very dangerous!
Such travelling is harder than scaling the blue sky.
...Until two rulers of this region
Pushed their way through in the misty ages,
Forty-eight thousand years had passed
With nobody arriving across the Qin border.
And the Great White Mountain, westward, still has only a bird's path
Up to the summit of Emei Peak --
Which was broken once by an earthquake and there were brave men lost,
Just finishing the stone rungs of their ladder toward heaven.
...High, as on a tall flag, six dragons drive the sun,
While the river, far below, lashes its twisted course.
Such height would be hard going for even a yellow crane,
So pity the poor monkeys who have only paws to use.
The Mountain of Green Clay is formed of many circles-
Each hundred steps, we have to turn nine turns among its mound --
Panting, we brush Orion and pass the Well Star,
Then, holding our chests with our hands and sinking to the ground with a groan,
We wonder if this westward trail will never have an end.
The formidable path ahead grows darker, darker still,
With nothing heard but the call of birds hemmed in by the ancient forest,
Male birds smoothly wheeling, following the females;
And there come to us the melancholy voices of the cuckoos
Out on the empty mountain, under the lonely moon....
Such travelling is harder than scaling the blue sky.
Even to hear of it turns the cheek pale,
With the highest crag barely a foot below heaven.
Dry pines hang, head down, from the face of the cliffs,
And a thousand plunging cataracts outroar one another
And send through ten thousand valleys a thunder of spinning stones.
With all this danger upon danger,
Why do people come here who live at a safe distance?
...Though Dagger-Tower Pass be firm and grim,
And while one man guards it
Ten thousand cannot force it,
What if he be not loyal,
But a wolf toward his fellows?
...There are ravenous tigers to fear in the day
And venomous reptiles in the night
With their teeth and their fangs ready
To cut people down like hemp.
Though the City of Silk be delectable, I would rather turn home quickly.
Such travelling is harder than scaling the blue sky....
But I still face westward with a dreary moan.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Yoshinkan Aikido 1983

When the Doshinkan Aikido Dojo was dedicated in 1983 by Utada Sensei, Kushida Sensei, as the ranking Yoshinkan teacher in the US, took part in the ceremony and performed a demonstration. 

Here are two videos of the demonstrations that day. The first is around 17 minutes long and the other is around 15 minutes.

Enjoy. This is how I remember Kushida Sensei.




Kushida Sensei's 1983 Yoshinkai Demonstration - Philadelphia from TENROKAN AIKIDO on Vimeo.

Yoshinkai Demo - Philadelphia 1983 from TENROKAN AIKIDO on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Tribute to a Taijiquan Master

Below is an excerpt from a tribute to Prof. Cheng Man Ching written by Robert W Smith a few years after Prof. Cheng's death. The entire text may be read here.

A Master Passes
A Tribute to Cheng Man-ch'ing
By Robert W. Smith, 1979

On hearing that Cheng Man-ch'ing had died suddenly in Taiwan on March 25, 1975, my reaction was one of disbelief. Even knowing that he was 75 and that he had energetically graced several fields of endeavor for so long couldn't dull this edge of disbelief. But a fact is a fact: Cheng has, as old Taoists say, 'changed.' He may even have had a premonition of the approaching change. I have been told that he had been working twenty hours a day on his study of the I-ching, (The Book of Changes) treating patients, and teaching T'ai-chi. His teaching style had changed. Where earlier he guided tersely, slowly, and sometimes by indirection, recently he had expedited the training and taken a more active part in it. The hectic pace of these activities - so like him - suggest that he was aware of the limited time remaining to him.

Life is anything but even. Yang Sen, the old Szechwan warlord, is now 94 in Taiwan, full of years, with many wives, and reportedly, 43 children. Yan has nothing to teach (despite his purported yang/yin powers) and is alive. Cheng who had much to teach is dead. And yet it seems to me that the Professor's greatest teaching is that each of us has to do it for himself. He always said that there were no secrets; he couldn't give us a pill. There was only the work of relaxing and sinking (and we know how hard that is), or 'investing in loss' and thereby winning by losing. And these are better than the fact I spoke of above: These are truths.

During the week in which the tiny 12-line notice headed 'Artist Cheng Dies at 75' appeared in the Taipei China Post two other stories were given full treatment. One, headlined 'Local Kung-fu Fighter Overpowers U.S. expert' told of a local screen boxer who outpointed a young American none of us had ever heard of. The Chinese, of course, claimed he could beat Muhammad Ail. In the other story, Chinese martial artists were deriding two Americans who spent 18 months studying, labeled themselves 'Masters of Kung Fu,' and returned to the USA One now had over 300 students in California. Do you wonder why I cringe from commercialism? Our 'kung fu' heroes today with their trampolines, sound effects, trick cameras, and public relations prostitutes have so little knowledge that most would not even recognize the high skill Cheng possessed. But we knew it. Put it this way: there was not only nobody equal, there wasn't even anyone second to him.

The sadness of all this is that one of the last of the giants is gone. Each generation sees more of the brilliance of real ch'uan fa die. It is not nostalgia that puts Yang Lu-ch'an far above Cheng-fu, and he superior to Cheng. There is much credible evidence establishing this sad decline. Professor Cheng acknowledged this. He wanted to advance but circumstances when he arrived on Taiwan from the mainland prevented it. Perhaps his genius in other fields also impinged on his desire. He did not have the skill of the Yang's but he was a more complete man that any of them. Maybe he knew what Bizet meant when he said of music: 'What a glorious art; what a hideous profession.'

Cheng wanted to be more than a T'ai-chi master. And was. When I met him in 1959, Professor Cheng was already on the wrong side of 60, but not showing it. I had been told that his eyes were very high, that he was independent almost to a fault, and that he was a Chinese traditionalist. So that I shouldn't expect much from him. Add to the difficulty, I, too, was fiercely independent. But what I got from the outset and down more than fifteen years was the quality Mencius made so much of - jen, loving kindness. He could be impatient; he was never with me; he sometimes could not suffer fools; he smilingly suffered me. And all this for a man who wanted no guru except love. He knew I was studying not only his system of T'ai-chi but he himself. I used to ask the same question (how my questions must have tired him!) from a different vantage on different occasions. He would smile (probably thinking: "Smith and the same old question!") and answer.

The main thing I wanted to elicit from him was simply: what can T'ai-chi do for character? This it seems to me is the toughest question of all. He had waffled on this I thought in his Thirteen Chapters by saying that it depended on the person. I sought to draw him out on it and was able over the years to establish that Yes, T'ai-chi, by relaxing not only the muscles but the organs themselves, would quiet a person. That once quiet and secure (sinking into rooted centered-ness) a person should be in a position where anxiety could make no inroads. This should then out in jen. In Thirteen Chapters he was only citing reality: many do T'ai-chi as an exercise which, even if they become very skillful at it, is never carried over into their workaday lives. His message was that this is incomplete T'ai-chi. Of course that wasn't the only question, merely the most important. I asked him endless questions on the postures and on pushing-hands (how I wish we could term this 'sensing-hands!'). And he was always forthcoming. I never got all my questions asked. As I tried to level out the mound atop my desk today I found a note to myself to ask the Professor. It concerned some words written in 1939 by Theos Bernard, the yoga adept:

"The body is most vigorous, active, and strong and the spirit is most brisk and lively when the sky is serene and unclouded and the wind east, north-east, or southeast. Warm dry air is superior to cold moist air. Humidity causes morbidity. Intense cold is bad - it obstructs vessels." unasked question that there's no one left to answer. I wanted to ask him how important these climactic conditions were for us in practicing T'ai-chi. Life is essentially an existence of unanswered questions.

Ah, the memories. . . In Taiwan my wife went with me once to a Sunday practice. After watching a while, she asked the Professor to push her. He compiled by lightly maneuvering her off the wall. She came back to me smiling by unawed: 'It was OK,' she murmured, none too enthusiastically. He watched well. And he was watching then, sensing her indifference. Walking over, he asked me her reaction, and truthful to a fault, I told him. Whereupon he took her by the hand back to the wall and pushed her again. This time she ran back to me (one of life's sweetest pleasure is to have a comely woman run to you), her eyes sparking, her words tumbling over one another. 'It was so strange,' she said, 'when he touched me I felt an electricity-like surge go throughout my body but without the shock.' He had followed her over and laughed at what she said. 'She felt that because she was relaxed,' he explained. That bothered me. 'But I've practiced for two years and I can't feel it,' I complained. He laughed again, 'Women,' he said, 'have an advantage over men. They are inherently more relaxed. You must work hard to get where they start from.'

Once I made the mistake of taking an American nidan in Okinawan karate to meet the Master. The American was singularly unimpressed by what he saw. He wanted a test. So the Master signaled to a student who faced the karateka. He faked a high kick, the student's arm started up; the foot flashed down, the student slapped it lightly while stepping inside and touching the American's heart. Dead, he failed to realize it, for he went away scoffing at T'ai-chi. I apologized to the Master later and he waved it aside: 'One must be kind to blind men.' The inevitable sequel: I took the lad to a Shaolin friend of mine and left him to his ministrations. A week later I saw him. He had discontinued. Why? "Damn it, those guys wanted to fight!" Unappreciative of the "soft," afraid of the "hard," this one doubtless is still thrilling them at cocktail parties with his dance. Fighting it is not. The Master was strong on a sound foundation. A good teacher, a good system, and a healthy body could not but equal success. Lacking any of these, the results would be less.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Tomiki Aikido Video

Below is a lengthy (16 minutes) video of Kenji Tomiki, the founder of Tomiki Aikido, filmed in the 30's and 50's. Enjoy.

Friday, May 07, 2021

The Last Man Standing

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7. It reads like a scene from a samurai movie - a new teacher arrives at a dojo and mops the floor with the senior students, all of whom had a chip on their shoulders.

The full post may be read here. Enjoy!

When Miyazaki Mosaburo, then 35 years old, walked in to the Butokuden as a newly minted kendo instructor at the end of the summer of 1927, the young busen students weren’t aware of who he was. Well, perhaps they heard rumours, but they certainly weren’t ready for what was about to happen. 

At almost 180cm, he was a good deal taller than everyone else there. His 94 kgs would’ve been equally as impressive to the lean kendoka that huddled together earlier that day and conspired together to knock him off his perch. Unlike nowadays, it was normal (even expected) for students to go full out and attempt to physically overpower those senior to them, to test them as it were. It was never going to work out how they planned… 

In 1909, the young 17 year old Miyazaki became a live-in student of the Butokukai’s head kendo instructor Naito Takaharu. He came to Kyoto to enter the Koshuka of the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo – martial art teachers development school – but why Naito chose him is unknown. Perhaps it was the potential that lay within his physical stature, or perhaps it was the young mans taciturn nature (which he would keep for his entire live), who knows. At any rate, young Miyazaki lived with Naito and his wife for a number of years (exactly how many years we are not sure, at least three, potentially more). 

We know how he spent his time there for the first three years because he kept a diary detailing his habits as well as his (and Naito’s) comings and goings (only three years worth have been found). As a a historical document it is invaluable. 

During that time he cleaned Naito’s house, looked after his wife when she was ill, prepared breakfast, attended Kusonoki sensei’s lectures at Nanzenji (often along with Saimura Goro – an article for the future),  as well as attend keiko at the Butokuden. His proximity to Naito sensei is unrivalled (except perhaps with Shinohe Taisuke), and he was almost certainly extended certain privileges in later life because of it. 

Despite not being as well known as some of Naito’s other early students (Saimura, Mochida, Nakano, Ogawa, Oshima, Shimatani), it is almost certain that he was his favourite. Naito ensured that Miyazaki stayed in in a junior instructor position when he graduated, found him a good job in Mie prefecture, and called him back to Kyoto when a Busen teaching position became available. Which is where our story started.

The number of student positions available each year at the full time Busen course was extremely limited (by this time the Yoseijo had evolved in to Busen proper). Those that managed to enrol had to be not only physically able, have prior experience, and pass a difficult entrance exam, they also needed some sort of recommendation letter as well (from someone of standing or a prior graduate). Most kendo students who went through Busen did so in the Koshuka or speciality (kendo or judo) only course. Students there did not attend academic lectures and their keiko was set at a different time (though the teachers were the same, and many full time students joined it as well). 

Many had other jobs and most stayed only for a short duration. In later years (1920s) students on the full time course would be awarded government approved teaching certificates (allowing them to find work easily). At any rate, there were two tiers of students, with full time students being the cream of the crop.

The students that Miyazaki faced in the summer of 1927 were those from the full-time course. When he himself went through Busen almost 20 years earlier (its forerunner, the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo) as a Koshuka, the difference between the full and part-time students was minimal. Now, however, the full time students had an air of superiority about them.

The students plan was simple: tire the old man out and beat him up. 

The first student that was sent up was a senior, fourth year student. His job was to non-stop attack the new teacher and exhaust him, allowing the other students to beat him down. The plan didn’t work. The opening kirikaeshi was intense. By the time it had finished his fighting spirit had dwindled. When jigeiko started he tried to strike kote-men and was sent flying on his back. Striking his head on the Butokuden floor, he was concussed.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Samurai and the Squirrel

In addition to his fame as a warrior, Miyamoto Musashi was a noted artist. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Ichijoji. The full post may be read here.

The bushi were a cultured lot – some of them, anyway – and Japan was a cultured society. Nowadays, when we look at the art of great civilisations, we tend to value it for its beauty – indeed, that is one of the things that attracts us to art in many of its forms. However, there is a lot more to art than that (as a cursory glance at any display of contemporary art will tell us) – and there always was. 

As a form of communication, art has messages and meanings beyond the aesthetic. Its value as a didactic and political tool was well understood by the rich and powerful of feudal Japan. Decorative schemes in castles, temples and residences contained subtle and not so subtle messages that their audiences were practiced in reading. They were messages about power, morals, aspiration – the usual things. The artists might also include details pointing to their lineage, linking to well-known works, thus emphasising the connection with more famous predecessors. (This was happening in the Kano school, where the sidelined Kyoto branch thought it necessary to point out that they were just as much, if not more, worthy successorsto the Kano traditionthan the politically favoured blood descendants of the founder who ran the Edo branch – their paintings were also beautiful, as you can see here). Other works of art operated on a smaller scale, with more personal messages for the satisfaction of the careful viewer.

Which brings us on to an often overlooked painting byMiyamoto Musashi: Squirrel and Grapes

As a subject, it was an auspicious one, symbolising abundance and fertility: grapes are obvious images of plently, while squirrels were seen as being like mice which were known for having large numbers of offspring. Perhaps not an obvious choice for Musashi, although it could be argued that it reflects a feeling of personal well-being and satisfaction with his position in the world. Indeed, at this stage, relatively late in his life, he was a guest of the powerful and cultured Hosokawa family in Kumamoto, far from the reverses he may have suffered in trying to establish himself in the capital. However, there is more to it than that.